Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Before I Go to Sleep
S.J. Watson
HarperCollins
$25.99, hardcover, 368 pages
Also available as Ebook ($12.99)
Release date: June 1, 2011

A woman wakes up. She doesn’t recognize the room she’s in or the man in bed next to her. Her first thought? Another one-night stand, this time with a married man. But in the bathroom she finds photos of herself and the man, some carefully labeled “Ben, your husband” and “Christine” pointing to a photo of herself. And the face that looks back at her from the mirror isn’t her own, or, rather, it’s her own face but much older than she thinks it should be.

This is how Christine Wheeler starts every day since an accident took away her memories and her ability to form new ones. A blank slate, dependent on her husband’s patience as he answers questions he must have answered thousands of times before.

As Christine begins to cope with that day’s discoveries, a cell phone rings. It’s her doctor, who tells her she’s been keeping a journal to help her remember.

Finding the journal, Christine begins to read about what her therapy uncovered and what few memories have come back, triggered by another photo or a visit to a place she used to live. The journal raises more questions than it answers. Is Ben lying to her about her past? If he is, is it to protect her from sudden grief over events long past or does he have another agenda? What led to Christine’s accident? Why did she write “Don’t trust Ben” on the front of the journal?

Told exclusively from Christine’s point of view, Before I Sleep by S.J. Watson pulls the reader into the disorienting world of amnesia. It’s generally considered difficult for a male author to write a female character well, but Watson’s Christine doesn’t suffer from a gender disconnect between author and character. Her mistakes and flaws build a picture of a real person, albeit one who has to build her own self-picture anew every morning.

After a protracted prologue (which serves mainly as an info dump – this is Christine; this is her condition), the story unfolds slowly, teasing the reader with glimpses of Christine’s past.

Christine’s struggles to put the clues together ground Before I Sleep in an immediate sense of “now.” Repetitions of her routine could be off-putting, but Watson adds just enough new information to keep interest high. And not all of the information is accurate. A reader looking to figure out the puzzle before Christine may be disappointed: Christine’s returning memories aren’t always real. Her doctor explains to her (and the reader) that “confabulation” describes the mind’s attempts to invent details to make sense of things, to fill gaps in memory.

As the book progresses, the stakes for Christine get higher. Her struggle is no longer just about recovering her memory. Her life may be in danger. Watson’s pacing is almost pitch perfect as Christine connects more pieces of her past and events move toward a surprisingly action-packed conclusion. The ending may strike some as a little too perfect, a little too reminiscent of a Lifetime movie, but Watson’s last paragraphs put the story back on track and the novel satisfyingly concludes in the only way it could.

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